Phyllis Lambert offers tribute to Zaha Hadid, 1950-2016

Zaha Hadid wearing the Royal Gold Medal. Photo: Sophie Mutevelian
Zaha Hadid wearing the Royal Gold Medal. Photo: Sophie Mutevelian

We are inconsolable at the loss of the prodigious phenomenon, and our generous friend, Zaha Hadid. Zaha catapulted into the architectural avant-garde in 1983 when she won the international competition for the Hong Kong Peak. Her astonishing paintings proposed a dynamic linearity that she would continuously advance. The Peak was not built and major work eluded her until construction of the space-defining Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhine in 1994, whose stretched, layered walls she described as “an ‘alert’ structure, ready to explode into action.”

The next year saw the most abysmal, scandalous, lily-livered commission fiasco, with the competition for the Cardiff Opera House in Wales, which has much to say about our era. Zaha’s brilliant proposal again won first prize—but when the clients learned that the British architect had been born in Iraq and was also a woman, the project was aborted. Not until a decade later did Zaha receive significant public—but odd ball—commissions in the United Kingdom: the Evelyn Grace Academy in the tough Brixton south London borough (winner of the 2011 Sterling Prize) and the 2004-11 Riverside Transportation Museum, Glasgow Harbor, Scotland (Winner of the 2013 European Museum of the Year Award).

By the time of this nascent recognition in Britain, Zaha had received the 2004 Pritzker Prize, the first woman to do so. The award cited major completed works—which, like Vitra and the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, were exceptional—but also other smaller, almost ephemeral projects, such as an exhibition building to mark a garden festival in Weil am Rhein, Germany; a car park and terminus in Hoenheim North, Germany; a “park and ride” and tramway on the outskirts of Strasbourg, France; and a ski jump overlooking Innsbruck, Austria. In an unusual move, other projects in various stages of development were also mentioned.

Among these other projects are the large, powerful works of the maturing architect. The BMW Central Building, Leipzig and the Phaeno Science Center, Wolfsburg, both completed in 2005 in Germany, embodied Hadid’s vision of creating complex, dynamic and fluid works that transcend traditional office and exhibition space. Similarly, at the MAXXI, Rome’s National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, completed in 2010, the variations and intersections of the levels determine a very rich spatial and functional configuration, as well as integration with the urban environment.

The London Aquatics Centre (2008-2011), the Innovative Tower Hong Kong (2009-13), the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park, Seoul, South Korea, which I saw in construction in 2013, and the Wangjing SOHO, Beijing, China, all veered towards curved spaces and volumes exploring new technologies and media, integrating with the flows of the city. Another little-known proposal within this language—La Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal, Canada—might well have been built by Zaha. The”Bilbao Effect” was in the air. Hopes hung on Zaha Hadid and Christian de Portzamparc. However, ambition bowed to pragmatism: the librarian members of the 2000 competition jury, more familiar with North American literalness than with European conceptualization, could not understand the plans, and with a tight money economy, the client was fearful of cost overruns.

Zaha was a magnificent woman. She and her work grew in richness and form. Finally, in September 2015, the architect who had been a United Kingdom outcast for twenty years at the turn of the century was at the enviable peak of British architecture, awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Society of British Architects for a lifetime’s work. In the award citation, Peter Cook characterized Zaha Hadid, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire as follows:

“For three decades now, she has ventured where few would dare. Indeed her work, though full of form, style and unstoppable mannerism, possesses a quality that some of us might refer to as an impeccable ‘eye’. In our culture of circumspection and modesty, her work is certainly not modest, and she herself is the opposite of modest. Zaha has the role of a towering, distinctive and relentless influence upon all around her, that sets the results apart from the norm. Such self-confidence is easily accepted in film-makers and football managers, but causes some architects to feel uncomfortable. Let’s face it, we might have awarded the medal to a worthy, comfortable character. We didn’t, we awarded it to Zaha: larger than life, bold as brass and certainly on the case.”

Not everything Zaha built or proposed was groundbreaking and a person of such talent and force of character, especially a woman, has many critics. When, with some distance, her work is assessed within the context of our time, I am convinced that Zaha Hadid will surely stand at the pinnacle of ambitious architecture.

-Phyllis Lambert, April 4, 2016